Evoking and Describing the Moral Sentiments: Normative Theory in the Smithean Mode

Michael Frazer

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While increasing numbers of moral and political philosophers today are embracing David Hume’s and Adam Smith’s thesis that moral reflection is more a matter of sentiment than it is a matter of mere reason, it is still generally agreed that practical philosophy itself ought not to be an impassioned enterprise. This essay, however, argues that practitioners of sentimentalist normative theory ought not limit themselves to the mere description of human sentiments, but may also justifiably attempt to evoke moral sentiments in their readers. As long the moral phenomena under discussion are being depicted accurately, there is nothing essentially manipulative or otherwise objectionable in being (to use Hume’s analogy) a “painter” as well as an “anatomist” of morals.
Yet there is an inherent tension between Hume’s two vocations. Anatomy establishes its accuracy by dissecting the object of its inquiry, destroying the natural appearances that are necessary for emotionally evocative painting. Hume struggled throughout his career to develop a mode of philosophical composition that somehow thoroughly scrutinized social phenomena while simultaneously depicting the features of ordinary life that evoke our moral sentiments. This essay argues that Smith ultimately proved more successful in this regard. The Theory of Moral Sentiments clearly conveys the arguments for the accuracy of its philosophical positions while continuously integrating eloquent narratives that evoke the reader’s moral sentiments without manipulating them—often narratives of homely experiences that his readers could recognize from their own lives.
For most of the twentieth century, when Hume’s work loomed over all Anglo-American ethics and Smith’s moral philosophy was essentially ignored, it might have seemed absurd to suggest that Smith’s work was compositionally superior to Hume’s. Today, however, as Smith’s ethics becomes ever-more appreciated, it can serve as a literary model for a mode of normative theory that moral sentimentalists today would do well to adopt as their own: one which includes emotionally evocative descriptions of genuine moral and political phenomena while prohibiting manipulative distortions of these phenomena.
Although there may be good reasons for scholars in many disciplines to communicate in their various specialized, dispassionate jargons, this is not the case in normative ethics and political theory. To the contrary, not only do the cold conventions of practical-philosophical writing today alienate scholars in this field from the general public, but they also have distorting effects within the field itself. Most notably, they stack the deck against any theory of ethics or politics which does not reduce moral discourse to an exchange of rational arguments appropriate only for a graduate seminar in formal logic. As philosophers increasingly come to reject these rationalist theories, they also ought to reject the literary conventions which helped give them a false air of plausibility in the first place.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 2015
EventAdam Smith: Critic of Capitalism - The Yale Center for the Study of Representative Institutions, New Haven, United States
Duration: 10 Apr 201510 Apr 2015


ConferenceAdam Smith: Critic of Capitalism
Country/TerritoryUnited States
CityNew Haven

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